If you could do whatever you wanted what would you be doing right now and where would you be? The subtext behind this question is two-fold: First, it suggests that you and pretty much everyone else is subject to external influences that affect what we do and where we end up and second, our place in life, the ‘destination’ we arrive at as a result of the cumulative consequences of our actions pretty much determines who we are.
The thought that we may not have as much agency as we think we have is not easy to entertain. The idea that our very sense of identity and selfhood may also be affected as a result makes it even more uncomfortable. Yet, the most up-to-theory that emerges of how we become who we are is one of a network of influences that are ascribed constantly changing values in a semantic web of nodes and edges.
This makes each of us a dynamic construct, but one that is grounded in the relational connections and their effect on our self, to the external world. The external world is data, independently verifiable events, facts and instances. Data is not inert. It is governed by the 4Vs of Volume, Velocity, Variety and Veracity which helps us form an image of what we think we see.
This is not difficult to illustrate. The idea each of us has about the current war in Ukraine, its importance, progress and effects depends upon the number of news outlets that cover it (Volume), the bloggers and ordinary people who talk about it on social media platforms (Velocity), the differing points of views that are aired about it (Variety) and the factual basis of it all (Veracity).
These 4Vs, that govern all data, then map onto specific internal attributes we possess which define our character, guide our understanding and become the basis for our actions.
It is easy to adopt a blind mechanistic approach here. If we could, for instance, control the bulk of the data that’s published about the war in Ukraine we could put in place a specific, tightly controlled narrative which would become the basis of the overall perception and that would, in turn, determine people’s behavior and choices regarding this conflict.
We Are Not Just Machines
We may be made of matter and the matter we are made of may have a substrate-specific response to external events that affect our internal world, but we are also capable of regulating the effect of that response through greater internal and external awareness.
Internal awareness is called self-reflection. External awareness is called situational awareness. Both are broken down into discrete modalities and each contributes towards greater emotional regulation and self-control.
Intentionality is the game-changer. It forms the border where we transition from amoeba-like responses to experienced and perceived external stimuli to choices, decisions and actions guided by considered volition and explained causally by logic.
The neuroscience of intentionality tells us that we achieve this transition through an awareness of mental states that are representational of specific experienced thoughts and events which are then ascribed value based upon the “capacities [that] are produced by mechanisms nested across multiple levels of organization” in the complex system that makes up a single human being.
In plain speak, we become volitional when we consciously live our truth and stand behind our values. Intangibles, such as values, beliefs and truth lead to tangibles such as actions, through intentionality.
The central principle of intentionality suggests that the moment we consciously choose to act in a specific way we are guided by choices that distinguish between abstracts such as “right” and “wrong”, “true” and “false”. The brain’s function similarly changes from a syntactic (procedure-based) engine driven by causality (i.e. I am hungry, I must eat) to a semantic (meaning-based) engine (i.e. I am hungry but I will not eat meat).
You Are What Your Choices Make You
You are, right now, the sum total of your choices and actions. If those are causal (and reactive) you have become what the world around you has indirectly ‘wanted’ you to become. If, however, your choices and actions have been intentional you have become the architect of your destiny. You may have even found your purpose.
So, to get back to the question that started this piece: What do you really want to do and where do you want to be in your life? If you’re not already on your way, what are you waiting for?
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